Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Amish Strand

I am me,

And you are you,

As you can see;

But when you do

The things that you can do,

You will find the Way,

And the Way will follow you. 

     ~ Benjamin's Hoff's "The Tao of Pooh"                      

                        *     *     *

Yes.  That's a photo of my parents -- Earl and Magdalena Denlinger -- taken by Dick Gotschall at my parents' 50th wedding anniversary in Hartville, Ohio.

                        *     *     *

The following came as a surprise to me.

The most powerful strand woven into the culture of my birth is...Amish.

                        *     *     *

Incidentally, just for the record, I am Mennonite.  I will always be Mennonite.

You can't really write or direct until you know where your home is.  Not until you can lead people to the unique window you've created, given them a stepladder, and let them climb up to see the view.

Perhaps that's why I started this blog.

Certainly, my most honest work has garnered the most powerful reactions.  Is it possible that my readers can help point me toward the stories I need to tell?

                        *     *     *

My own world view was created in the clash of cultures through which I've moved over the last twenty years:  Amish, Mennonite, Friends, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Jewish.  Even Atheist. 

I am Mennonite in the same way that a Catholic will always be a Catholic.  The Jesuits used to say, "Give us your child until he's seven, and we'll own him forever."  It's so true.

                        *     *     *

I'm also a Christian.  But that has nothing to do with being Mennonite or Amish or Catholic.  

As an artist, and a person of faith, I am deeply aware of the fact that the constant flow of questions streaming through my mind is a gift -- and a curse. 

I wish it were just a gift.

It's not like I can help myself.  I'm going to ask questions.  Feel free to join the conversation, or get the heck out of my way.

Is that a rude remark?  I intended it to be welcoming.  Just for the record, I'd prefer that you join the conversation.  Really. 

                        *     *     *

During my childhood and youth, I saw my home community attempt to differentiate itself from Amish culture.  How unfortunate.  The Amish culture is the gentlest weave within the quilt of my faith today.

Several religious influences fused into a denomination in the 1950s.  It labeled itself conservative Mennonite.  I've already spoken about its harshness.

In 1988, I completed my history thesis on an all-school revival that took place at Hartville Christian School in 1973.  To understand its force, I examined the birth of my home church, the Hartville Conservative Mennonite Church. 

To my shock, I discovered that the gentlest cultural influence of my childhood -- and the one from which my community had fled -- was Amish.

                        *     *     *

I don't know why my perspective is so different.  One could argue that every one of my siblings are individualists by nature.  I suspect that's because we come from a father who refused to do what everyone else did.

At least that's his nature.  I used to regard this quality as a negative. 

Today, it's the reason I am so proud of my father.  He modeled individualism.  He questioned the world around him.  He invented labor-saving gadgets.  And he drove everyone crazy, including me.

What caused my father to be this way?  Why couldn't he simply be like everyone else?  He didn't seem to give two cents for what other people thought.

Can you imagine what it was like to have a father like that?  When I was in my early teens and just wanted to fit in.  Forget that.

                        *     *     *

My father left his home community, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to marry a conservative  Mennonite girl.  A beautiful young woman he had met  while he was completing his 1-W service as a conscientious objector.  During the Korean War.

They met while doing missionary work to multi-ethnic children.  The mission was located squarely in the Bronx.

They worked together as a married couple until my third sister arrived.  Shortly before I was born, they decided that the Bronx was no place to raise a family.  So they moved to Hartville, Ohio.  It was five years after they were married.

                        *     *     *

Several years ago, I got an email from some random mother.  She was looking for her missing child.

Apparently, she took a boy child home with her on September 8, 1963.  But it turned out that this boy child was NOT her progeny.  Her real child was switched in the hospital.

Wait!  September 8, 1963.  That's MY birthday.

A hospital in New York City.  In the Bronx.  My parents were living in that area right around that time.

I thought my birth certificate was registered at Aultman Hospital.  Canton, Ohio.

The random stranger who wrote to me asked me if I was her child. 

If she was my mother. 

Now that would explain a lot of things, I thought.  So I checked with my mother.  Where exactly was I born?

                        *     *     *

In Hartville, Ohio, my parents tried to fit into my mother's conservative Mennonite community.  It didn't work. 

For one thing, my father didn't own a farm.  He didn't know how to do construction work.  He only had a high school diploma.  And he was mighty proud of it.

So my father got a job in a lumber yard.  Too many times a month, he had to miss work, due to debilitating migraines.

                        *     *     *

So there's no real proof that I'm a child of my parents?  Oh, there is.

Okay.  Now that you mention it, I do look a LOT like my family.

                        *     *     *

The move to Ohio must have been a jolt to my father's system.  He knew NO one in Hartville.  And he carried a funny last name that people still can't pronounce.

I often tell people this:  My ancestors must have lingered in dens.  Den-linger

It's the only way I can get them to pronounce it correctly.

                        *     *     *

In the 42 years I've known my father, I've never heard him question his decision to live within my mother's home community.  He has steadfastly supported its conservative lifestyle.

When I was ten, I believed that my father had thought it up. 

Okay, not really.  But almost.

                        *     *     *

In July 2003, as I researched material for Mennonite Prince, I happened upon Donald B. Kraybill's The Riddle of Amish Culture (2001).

It opened my eyes.  It's one of the most respectful, profound examinations of that culture.  On the cover is a picture of two Amish girls moving down the road -- on roller skates.

On pages 34-5, Kraybill talks about a German concept called Gelassenheit.

The constraints of Amish culture would certainly suffocate the "free spirits" of the modern world.  But Amish children, taught to respect the primacy of the community, usually feel less stifled by the constraints than Moderns who cherish individuality.

The grammar of Gelassenheit regulates interaction with others.  How one smiles, laughs, shakes hands, removes one's hat, and drives one's horse signals Gelassenheit or its absence.

A boisterous laugh and a quick retort betray a cocky spirit.  Rather, a gentle chuckle, a hesitation, and a refined smile embody a yielded and submissive spirit.  A slow and thoughtful answer, a deference to the other's idea, and a reluctance to interrupt a conversation are signs of Gelassenheit. 

It was Kraybill who first helped me see what a stark change had taken place within the Amish of Hartville, Ohio, who converted to a faith that was evangelical and fundamentalist.

It is precisely at this point that Amish faith bewilders those with evangelical religious persuasions.  Amish faith is holistic.  The Amish resist separating means and ends -- salvation and eternal life.  They are reluctant to say that they are sure of salvation.  They focus on living faithfully while waiting on providence -- trusting that things will turn out well.  Announcing that one is certain of eternal salvation reveals a haughty attitude that mocks the spirit of Gelassenheit....

The code words of the evangelical mind-set --personal salvation, personal evangelism, and personal devotions -- accent the individual rather than the community as the center of redemptive activity.  In refusing this vocabulary, the Amish bring a much more holistic, integrated view that does not separate the individual fromcommunity or faith from action. 

Evangelical and Amish vocabularies are analogous to two foreign languages describing the same sentiments of love.  One is a communal language of patience, humility, community, and practice; the other is a individualistic language of beliefs, certainty, feeling, and experience. 

Whereas evangelical Christians want to know, control, plan, and act to guarantee their salvation, the Amish outlook is a more modest and perhaps a more honest one.

                        *     *     *

"We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time."

              ~ "Little Gidding" by T.S. Eliot


sistercdr said...

Steve, this is fascinating stuff.  Admittedly, I'm a bit of a religion geek who had to wander far and wide to come back to my Christian roots with hope and belief.  I cannot tell you how much I identify with these sentences:   As an artist, and a person of faith, I am deeply aware of the fact that the constant flow of questions streaming through my mind is a gift -- and a curse.    I wish it were just a gift.  This is something that is so difficult to convey.  For me, the questions are as big a part of my faith as the answers, and if it weren't for questions, I'd have no art.  I know the Mennonites and the Amish both come from the Anabaptists.  I know that some Mennonites are considerably more liberal than others.  I just hope to read more of this.

paulajlambert said...

Bravo, Steve! This is the writing on your blog I am most attracted to (most identify with perhaps). It is fascinating to read your personal story, personal history, but more so to see the intellectual process that accompanies it. You invite your readers not only to read, but to think, and to free-associate our own experiences. This is so lovely, and so valuable, and so rare. Please keep writing this way, in your blog or otherwise. It's good, good stuff.

Like Cynthia, I too was most affected by this: "As an artist, and a person of faith, I am deeply aware of the fact that the constant flow of questions streaming through my mind is a gift -- and a curse.   I wish it were just a gift." I understand the wish, but hope you understand that it is misguided. Keeping the "gift/curse" aspects in balance is the truest, most important blessing. It is what we learn as we wend our way through the labryinth of often-unanswerable questions--as we accept and experience the frustration of the "curse--that we find our way back to wisdom and truth--our own truth, which, ultimately, is the only truth, THE truth.

vxv123 said...

Beautifully expressed, Steven.  This was a fascinating and engrossing read.  Thank you for opening your soul to your readers.


PS Switched at birth, eh?

cloudlessangel13 said...

I really enjoyed this entry.  I have always enjoyed hearing stories from the lives of others, I feel it enriches my own life.  It is important to be able to talk about your personal history like that, I am still unable to do so, but I hope someday I will be able to share it as openly as you.  I am looking forward to being home in a week, I hope to see you sometime while I am back.  Once again, I enjoyed this entry very much.